The Coddling of Stephen Strasburg

Oct 9, 2012 by

The Coddling of Stephen Strasburg


After the 12-4 drubbing the Washington Nationals received at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals in game 2 of the NLDS, one can’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different had Stephen Strasburg pitched.  Based on his regular season performance, he likely would have been named the game two starter.  Instead he sits on the sidelines, not because he is injured, but because the Nationals have decided to impose a seemingly arbitrary number of restricted innings on his season.  As a result, any time the Washington Nationals starting pitching falters, there will be questions about the decision to shut down Strasburg.  It will be a point of discussion and potential distraction for the rest of the playoffs, and perhaps years to come, because the Nationals willingly chose to field a team that is short one of its star players. The Nationals management will argue that their decision was based on the desire to protect the long-term health of Stephen Strasburg, but to most fans and critics this decision wreaks of paranoia and poor management.  In a season where the Nationals have emerged as a relevant team for the first time since it moved from Montreal in 2005, there are going to be questions about the teams’ leadership should they be knocked out in the playoffs, especially if it’s an early exit.


The sad thing is that the emergence of the Washington Nationals is one of the most compelling stories of the 2012 MLB season.  Heading into the playoffs they had the best record in MLB with a 98-64 record; a stark contrast to its previous years of futility.   Since Washington moved from Montreal, the Nationals have languished among baseball’s basement dwellers.  Their years of poor performance and high draft picks have resulted in the accumulation of a number of exciting young baseball players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The fruits of their failures have formed a highly competitive nucleus and as a result have assembled a young elite team loaded with an impressive pitching rotation and a batting order comprised of a nice mixture of young stars and veteran leadership.  But for all the excitement surrounding the Nationals heading into the post-season a dark cloud follows this team since their phenom starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg was shut down for precautionary reasons on September 7.


Strasburg’s 2012 season ended because he met his maximum innings pitched (roughly 160) based on a team imposed cap set out from the beginning of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.  Restricting his innings pitched, is part of his rehabilitation after missing all of last season due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which typically requires 12-18 months before fully healing. As it stands he is not hurt and is living up to the promise as a highly touted former number one overall pick from the 2009 draft.  His season ended with a 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA and at the time he was shut down he was tied for 4th in the National League for wins, and second with 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings pitched.  He narrowly fell out of the top ten in era after struggling in his last few starts. Strasburg was having an all-star season and will likely receive a few Cy Young votes, but now has to sit and watch his team try to win the World Series without him.  Coincidentally, the team has been let down by management for removing a game changer from their lineup on the eve of their first attempt to win a World Series.  An opportunity that management appears to be taking for granted; but will assuredly be reminded of for years to come if the Nationals should not return to the playoffs in the coming years.  Already this decision is drawing far too much unnecessary attention and will continue to be a talking point unless they win the World Series this year.


The Nationals have drawn the ire of fans and media alike for not having better foresight in handling Strasburg’s innings pitched and finding a way to stretch out his innings or to preserve him for the post season.  The criticism of the general manager Mike Rizzo and the organization seems warranted. It’s hard to understand the Nationals’ argument here. Strasburg helped lead this team to the playoffs and deserved the opportunity to have a chance to pitch when it mattered most.  At the very least, team management should have been more flexible during the season with the allocation of his innings. I can understand restricting his innings for his long-term health, but how can the team not adapt mid-season and find a way to stretch his innings so that he can participate in the playoffs? The Nationals have let down Strasburg, their  team and its fans. And the long-term consequences could easily come back to haunt this organization. There are no guarantees this team will return to the playoffs, just ask the former brass of the Montreal Expos how hard it is to get to the playoffs. Also, there is no telling what kind of tension this creates between Strasburg and the Nationals or what damage it does to the psyche of a young man trying to live up to the expectations of being a number one overall pick.


There simply are no assurances that Strasburg will have a long healthy career based on the decision to cut this season short.  There is no way to predict if his health will be preserved or if the decision is of any benefit at all.  There is no magic crystal ball that tells us how Strasburg will develop or if injuries will continue to plague him.  A prime example is Kyle Drabek a similarly highly touted starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays who reinjured his pitching arm this season and will have to undergo Tommy John surgery for a second time – he’s only 24 years old.  All the precautions were made with his rehabilitation and yet here is a gifted young pitcher who must undergo another debilitating set back.  There are simply no assurances that Strasburg won’t face a similar fate. Before he was pulled out of the lineup he was one of the best pitchers in the National League.  Strasburg is healthy, wants to pitch and has earned the right to have a say in the matter.  But he does not and the impact of making this decision without his support could have unintended consequences, especially if the Nationals have any type of setback.


There are simply no guarantees in life and injury to an athlete is unpredictable. The promise of a young athlete can quickly disappear due to a number of factors like injury, psychological make-up, poor off field habits etc.  A team can only make decisions based on what they know and what is clear to any observer is that Strasburg was one of the key players behind the success of the Nationals this season and that he is healthy and gave no reason to believe he couldn’t continue to pitch into the post season. There’s no reason to hold him back, but it’s indicative of a trend growing in baseball where pitchers are being coddled. On some level it’s understandable because of the amount of money invested and the value of pitching in baseball is at a premium.  But at some point the players have to be a given the freedom to succeed without management over thinking every step in the process.  So this is not specific only to the Nationals, but it is magnified by their choice to hold back Strasburg because of his potential impact and what is at stake. Teams who shut down their pitchers early and who are not in the playoffs are not going to be questioned by media and fans because there is nothing more to play for.  But teams who are in the playoffs, or competing for a playoff spot, have to make better adjustments during the season to ensure they can field the best team possible.  A World Series victory is what every baseball player desires and the Washington Nationals management’s inability to adapt to the moment is putting the team in a disadvantage simply to save face and to protect an asset for what they perceive to be his own good; but presumably Strasburg would rather pitch than be treated like a china doll.


It’s still early in the NLDS with the series tied 1-1 between St.  Louis and Washington, but victories are harder to come by in October and the Nationals are without one of their key performers out of a self-imposed choice.  It will be hard to overcome the loss of a 15 game winner and a promising young star; unfortunately for the Nationals the decision to hold him back will likely become a point of contention in the offseason unless they find a way to win without him.  The silver lining behind this story is that other teams will hopefully re-evaluate how they handle their star pitchers who have restricted innings during the regular season.  Certainly it will serve MLB teams better to have their best players in the lineup for the playoffs and it also serves the game of baseball better to have its stars have an opportunity to shine when the lights are brightest.  That’s where history is made and heroes emerge. We will never know if Strasburg would have made an  impact for the Nationals in the 2012 playoffs, because he was never given the opportunity to succeed.  For fans of the game of baseball, let’s hope it’s the last time a top-notch talent like Strasburg has to sit on the side line and, like the fans, left to wonder what might have been.










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